An Introduction to UK Archives
This page is part of: Using Archives: A Guide for the Inexperienced
The records of our Westminster government form the longest continuous series anywhere in the western world and the UK also has extensive archives and records that have originated within the church, landed estates, institutions and corporations, business and industry.
The wealth and range of our collective ‘archival inheritance’ from past centuries up to the present day forms a substantial proportion of the UK’s written heritage. It records the interactions of our predecessors and their relationships with the various administrations, organisations and influences that affected or guided their lives. It is a priceless and irreplaceable asset for future generations. These documents are carefully stored and preserved for future generations in archive repositories across the country. How we record our own activities now, on both physical and digital mediums, will influence our ability to document and archive these sources in the future.
It is difficult to know how many archive repositories or record offices there are in the UK, especially if you count the many valuable community archives. Certainly they number in the thousands and include universities, colleges, learned institutions, businesses, charities, local authorities, museums holding archives, and a large number of often small specialist repositories, usually subject based (e.g. medicine, theatre, architecture).
Patterns of custody and administrative responsibility are complex, with a variety of agendas and funding streams. There is no statutory responsibility for archives other than Public Records, which come under the Public Records Act. The Keeper of Public Records is the Chief Executive of The National Archives (TNA) and they are responsible for safeguarding our public records. TNA is the UK government's official archive. There are separate national archives for Scotland - the National Records of Scotland, and Northern Ireland - the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland
County record offices are the responsibility of local government authorities. They are often run with a small staff and budget, yet they maintain and provide access to a huge amount of our history and heritage, especially archives relating to the local area, such as estate and business archives, as well as parish records (births, marriages and deaths). A county record office may act as the diocesan record office, and hold manorial and tithe records.
Universities often hold fine collections of archives, manuscripts and rare books, commonly referred to as special collections. Many of their collections are donated by alumni and their institutional holdings are often very rich and multi-faceted.
Specialist repositories usually collect archives related to a subject area, but be aware that they may hold a wealth of material covering a surprising range of subjects. This is a reflection of the way archive collections are not pre-defined or consciously created for researchers. They were created in the course of people's lives and activities, and so the archive of an architect or a writer or a physicist may well reflect not only their area of specialism but also their personal life and interests.
Business archives are often maintained within the organisation and may or may not be openly accessible. They often provide perspectives on economic, political and social history, as well as recording the business itself.
Archives are often used for historical research, family and local history, and seen as a vital part of our cultural heritage. But they can also form an important legal source of evidence and document key political, economic and social decisions. They may also be invaluable to a business in recording its corporate history, and are often used to help with branding and identity.